Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Review: Virtua Tennis 4

It’s always the way, isn’t it? You wait for a decent tennis game to be released and then two come along at once. Hot on the heels of the slightly more sim-oriented Top Spin 4 emerging a few weeks ago, it’s Virtua Tennis 4 that’s now been served up – and frankly, it’s Ace!

The presentation lives up to SEGA’s usual high standards with a crisp menu screen showcasing the various options and game modes. Besides the usual exhibition single or double matches and the online mode, Party Games, Motion Control options and the career mode form a fairly comprehensive package.

The light-hearted Party Mode is home to several inventive mini games that aim to enhance your skills. They’re fun too – and varied – with the games decent enough to keep you coming back for more, while providing a nice distraction from regular tennis matches. One sees you trying to smash the ball into a football net to score goals while avoiding obstacles and a moving goalkeeper. Then there is a variation where you have to hit a giant bomb over the net and ensure it’s not on your side of the court when it detonates. A coin collecting game, where you grab as much cash as possible while attempting to defeat your opponent is also fun. There's one that's poker-themed and another where walls rise and lower while playing - but our personal favourite has to be the slightly wacky egg-hatching mini-game, which sees you lead cute chicks across a court being pelted with balls. A direct hit and the chicks are clucked!

The motion control element of Virtua Tennis 4 certainly shouldn’t be the reason for buying the game as it’s basically a watered down version of how you’d play with a controller. Player movement is literally taken out of your hands and is computer-controlled, meaning all you have to worry about it waving your hands/imaginary racket to hit the ball. It’s a nice addition but adds little to the title overall – still, it’s nice to have the option, eh? We reviewed the Xbox 360 version and used Kinect but I’d think that PS3 users may have a little more enjoyment using Move. Kinect seems a little unwieldy in practice and actually proves pretty awkward when playing. On many occasions the ball whizzed past me just as my swing made a much-delayed appearance on screen. It's a shame and something to be improved upon in the next update.

Certainly, it’s the World Tour option that proves most enjoyable. The hefty career mode sees you partake in a spot of globetrotting, with the occasional tennis match, mini game and public appearance thrown in to help improve your reputation. Your standing and fanbase are represented by stars, which you accumulate as you progress. Playing a high profile opponent, winning a tournament or hiring an agent and attending some fan event all add to your total which pushes you further up the ranks.

The World Tour is a kind of board-game affair, with numbered tickets acting like dice and allowing you to move along the gameboard. Tactics come into play as you need to carefully manage your time between cultivating a legion of fans, playing practice sessions and getting enough rest before the sometimes lengthy cup runs.

The pace of the matches is nice and frenetic, and you’ll need to be nimble with the stick and buttons to respond to a great counter strike by your rival. Along the way, you’ll unlock various abilities and playing styles that you can take with you to the court. And not only can you determine whether your character is a defensive powerhouse, great counterstiker or has amazing netplay, you can also purchase new clothing and forge partnerships for doubles matches.

A gauge fills up at the top of the screen during play and, when complete, allows you to perform a supershot – accompanied by a slow motion close up of your player going in for the kill. It has a very arcadey feel to it but not so much that it spoils your enjoyment. There’s something intensely satisfying about smashing the ball past Federer in slow motion for that winning point in a tournament final!

The graphics are decent and everything looks crisp and fresh. The character models are great and all the famous faces are there; the girls and guys of the tennis world nicely replicated, complete with trademark serves, smashes and grunts. Even when balls are belted cross court at high speed, there are no visible signs of slow down. The only real criticism that could be levelled at it aesthetically are the fairly poor sweat effects; the trickle of perspiration that runs down your player’s face come the end of the match is slightly bizarre and makes them look like they’re melting. Of course, this is by no means a deal breaker and shouldn’t get you hot under the collar…

Online play is equally fun and displays the same fluidity and panache as the single player game. Match-ups are easy to find and there’s no lag whatsoever during play. Win or lose, XP is collected that pushes you up the ranks. The controls remain the same in the online modes except for the trigger buttons, which offer up some preset banter you can direct at your opponent after earning or losing a point. Each match can be tailored to your requirements, with the selection of how tough you want the challenger to be, game length and so on.

You’d think that there wasn’t a lot of scope for developers to improve on previous tennis games. Sure, the roster can be updated and the graphics and animations given an overhaul but the general premise remains the same. Saying that though, this edition of Virtua Tennis 4 is a worthy successor to the series and well worth a purchase!

*Reviewed on Xbox 360